On Friday evening, Rabbi Jamie Arnold prepared to celebrate the Sabbath in the socially distanced and virtual way that the coronavirus pandemic has made the norm for Congregation Beth Evergreen.
For the first time in months, a handful of members sat safely scattered in the synagogue’s sanctuary while a video camera streamed images of the service via Zoom to the screens of several dozen congregants watching from home.
But this Shabbat featured some special touches. Several feet to Arnold’s left stood Val Robinson, who served nearly four decades as the music director at Denver’s predominantly Black Zion Temple Church, helping the rabbi belt out traditional Christian gospel songs that also resonated with lyrics in Hebrew.
And on the Zoom grid showing at-home worshippers, one of the boxes revealed the smiling face of Pastor Robert Martin Jr., leader of Zion Temple Church, singing and clapping along with music that at times swelled to revival-tent rhythm.
“Please do sing,” Arnold urged his virtual audience at the start of the service. “You’re muted, so you don’t have to care how you sound.”
This musical variation on Shabbat wasn’t unusual for Arnold, who years ago introduced Congregation Beth Evergreen to “creative music services” that paired Jewish themes with artists from Bob Marley to James Taylor to the Grateful Dead. In fact, Robinson has become an annual collaborator as the congregation, which numbers about 200 families, explores Jewish gospel music — sometimes called “jospel” or “kosher gospel” — that blends themes of Judaism with traditional sounds of American gospel.
But this year, the music carried additional significance.
WATCH: Rabbi Arnold and Val Robinson on the pulpit swap
The pandemic, the divisive political atmosphere, the killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests that followed — all of it fueled a gathering sense that America had arrived at a moment of racial reckoning. Arnold felt a desire in the Jewish community — and personally — to support and participate in the movement.
“In the early stages,” Arnold says of the collaboration, “the goal was to have a great service with great music. In terms of seeing if it could develop into more than that, to seed a lasting relationship with a congregation and develop a partnership and alliance of mutual support, it was just the beginning.”
A festering legacy of racism and anti-Semitism has become increasingly overt, Arnold said, while the pandemic has highlighted the economic disadvantages that people of color bear. At the same time, COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, has both underscored the social impact of the crisis while injecting a sense of urgency.
In looking for a way to be an ally to the Black community, the rabbi realized that his congregation’s musical connection to Zion Temple Church might provide a bridge. He approached Martin with the idea of expanding the relationship between the two congregations by doing a “pulpit swap” — Martin would address Beth Evergreen’s Friday evening service, while Arnold would speak on Sunday morning to Zion Temple’s virtual churchgoers.
Martin was on board.
And on Friday night, as he spoke via Zoom from his Denver office, he expressed amazement that he could “feel so much love through technology.”
“On this particular evening, this great celebration of Shabbat, I feel something,” Martin told Beth Evergreen, “and I don’t want to let it go. I don’t want to release it. I want this to go with me through the rest of this year, so that I can capitalize and archive this moment as being more than just special. I believe this was a moment in time that I want to hold onto for the rest of my life.”
What began as an effort to expand expression of Jewish faith eventually found harmony with gospel, but it was through a fortuitous connection to Zion Temple Church that the collaboration took root and blossomed.
For 37 years, Val Robinson served as music ministry leader for Zion Temple Church, having followed her mother, a federal government worker, from Ohio to Colorado right after college. She grew up in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in Cleveland Heights, where simple proximity to the faith led to some familiarity, even though her family attended a Pentecostal church.
But Robinson’s sister, Alysa Stanton, felt pulled to Judaism.
“From the first time she attended Jewish services she was like, ‘I want to know more, I want to be involved, what do I need to do?’” Robinson recalled. “She grew up Pentecostal, but ended up converting. She always had a hunger and a thirst to know more.”
Robinson notes that her sister eventually became the first African American woman to become a rabbi. Along the way, Stanton served for a brief time as a rabbinical student at Congregation Beth Evergreen, where she mentioned that her sister conducted a gospel choir in Denver.
Two years ago, as the Jewish congregation planned to honor Black History Month, Beth Evergreen got in touch with Robinson to talk about convening a full-scale gospel choir, rather than the small group that had been performing. Soon Robinson and her longtime pianist Patrick Slaughter were working with the Beth Evergreen choir on a couple of gospel hymns they and Arnold adapted for the occasion, adding some lines of Hebrew and altering specific Christian theological references — “but not to the point where you’re losing the Gospel,” Robinson says.
Arnold had been exposed to Jewish gospel music even before he arrived at Beth Evergreen in 2005. A few years earlier, he’d heard a singer named Joshua Nelson — the self-described “Prince of Kosher Gospel” — in Buffalo, New York. The music made an impression and added what he calls “a piece of the journey” toward his congregation’s embrace of the music.
Later, after he’d introduced his creative music services by melding the work of many contemporary artists with Jewish prayer, he invited Sharon Alexander, a noted Jewish gospel singer and teacher, to Evergreen as an artist-in-residence, where she led a gospel Shabbat.
So by 2018, it wasn’t a huge leap at all to welcome Robinson. Beth Evergreen also invited members of the Evergreen Chorale to join them in what became an interfaith/secular performance. Then last year, some of the congregation preceded their performance with a field trip to Zion Temple Church on Denver’s east side, so they could witness gospel music in its Christian context.
“Each year it got bigger,” Robinson says of the Evergreen performances. “In fact, the first year we not only had the choir but also other rabbis from other communities joining our choir, which was amazing. It was something like you’ve never experienced before. What they felt coming from gospel music is that it feels more free, you feel energy. That’s what they explained to me.”
So in the beginning, it was all grounded in music. But Arnold wanted to take the next step.
“Much of the groundwork for racial justice is built from relationships, one at a time with our neighbors — to see and know people and to love them as yourself,” he said. “The work of racial justice begins with acknowledging and confronting our own racial bias. So to have relationships with people of color is an important way to protect ourselves from bias turning into prejudice, and worse forms of discrimination.”
The congregation’s outreach led to a relationship with Robert Martin Jr., who in his 59 years has never strayed far from Zion Temple Church.
His uncle founded the congregation when it opened its doors downtown at 25th and California streets in 1961 and served as its pastor until his death in 1997, when Martin’s father, Robert Sr., took over leadership. He retired in 2005 and was succeeded as pastor by his son.
Part of the Pentacostal Assemblies of the World Inc., Zion Temple since its inception has outgrown both the downtown site and a second location at Eighth Avenue and Grape Street in 1977 before making its home in 1985 at 16th Avenue and Syracuse Street.
“Music plays a major part in our services,” Martin said. “We’re a charismatic ministry — organ, drums, guitar. We like to say at Zion that once you come to one of our services, you will know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you have been to church.”
But early on, Martin didn’t see himself on this path. As a young man, he had settled into the high-fashion men’s and women’s clothing industry, never really entertaining pastoral work until 2000, when he became assistant pastor under his father.
“It just started taking shape without me knowing it was taking shape,” he said. “Then I couldn’t fight the call of God.”
The day before the Shabbat, Martin thought about this moment in American history, about the talk of a racial reckoning, and how all at once it feels different from the previous times when the country experienced short-lived hints of progress — and yet the same.
What’s different, he explains, is the seeming unity among the protesters of police violence and racial injustice. Today, allies of the Black community represent a much broader swath of society.
What feels disappointingly similar is hearing lots of good conversations — but without a real push toward systemic change. At least not at the highest levels of decision-making from the municipal to the federal level.
And yet, he feels an urgency to determine where the current upheaval is heading and whether it has the potential to become a lifelong effort that outlives the “emotionalism” of the moment.
“I’ll be real honest,” he said. “I am cautiously optimistic. And I’m trying to guard my optimism by not totally going to a negative point of view based on history past. I want to remain cautiously optimistic, hoping and believing this is a turning point.”
When it came to settling on what he would say in his brief sermon to the congregation at Beth Evergreen, he reflected on something Rabbi Arnold had said: “Tell us what you think we need to hear.”
That led him to Psalm 46, which begins: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”
“That will really be the anchor for this Friday message, that it’s going to get better,” he said. “I won’t even touch the social justice side. That takes a lot more time than 10 minutes. But it’s also a very delicate balance of ministering the Gospel and combining it at some level with social justice. To my observation, that’s not always the best platform to go into those areas. So for me, I try to separate those two worlds.
“It’ll be more an inspirational message of hope,” he added. “I think this pandemic has affected us in ways that are going to have long-term effects mentally as well as spiritually that we’re going to have to overcome. I really do want to send a message that it really will be all right.”
When the time came for Martin to give his sermon Friday night, he read from Psalm 46 and carried an encouraging message — both for the world at large and for the future of the nascent relationship between two congregations.
“We’ve come to worship in the beauty of holiness, believing and agreeing that there are more things we have in common, as opposed to the things that make us different,” he said. “And if we can appreciate culture, creativity, and the unifying effort of this night, I really do believe that the world can become a better place.”
Arnold noted afterward that a rainbow appeared on the nearby hills as Martin spoke — a symbol of diversity and of God’s covenant with Noah.
“So you must have brought some magic to this night,” he said to Martin.
When Zion Temple Church convened its virtual service on Sunday morning, Martin introduced Arnold by expressing gratitude for all that had transpired over the weekend, and his hope that it was the first of many opportunities for the two congregations to worship together.
From the synagogue in Evergreen, Arnold — assisted by Robinson and her pianist — sang two gospel songs that once again featured injections of Hebrew phrasing. And later in the service, Arnold looked into the camera and told the Zion Temple congregation “shalom aleichem,” a phrase drawn from a song commonly sung on the eve of the Sabbath that means “peace be with you.”
“Thank you for sharing a piece of your music with us at Beth Evergreen to fill our Sabbath and our sanctuary with sacred song,” he said. “May you have peace upon you, peace upon your brothers and sisters, shalom aleichem, and we look forward to many more gatherings and celebrations together.
“And,” he added, “we pledge to stand with you and your community in any time of need as well.”
For Beth Evergreen congregant Anne Wolf, who watched both services, that parting thought from her rabbi got to the crux of the matter.
“I think that’s extremely important for us as Jews to say we’ve been there, we have a history that in many ways is parallel to yours,” she said. “Even though right now, the violence perpetrated against Black people is over and above that which any other group is experiencing, we have a duty to stand beside people who are being treated in a manner that persecutes.”
Martin said after the services that he had many calls from church members excited about the connection with Beth Evergreen. And both he and Arnold expressed hope that their still-young relationship could become an example for others.
“It just feels right,” Martin said. “It has a very good feeling and fit. And I don’t believe it will be the last time we come together and explore how we become a voice during this age, this time of great uncertainty and unrest.”